Inappropriate Laughter – Simon Guerrier
As you’d expect, Simon’s story is the set-up piece for the anthology. Following on directly from Parallel Lives (where we were left hanging as to who Hass was preparing a burial mound for) we discover that Bernice’s long time companion, her cat Wolsey, has passed on. What upsets Benny is that none of her friends really seems to care, other than the gardener Hass. To take her mind off things Irving Braxiatel asks her to look after an inventor/scientist who is visiting the Collection. A bloke named Doggles (sounds like goggles) who has gone and invented himself a history machine that can look into the past, present and future of any point in history.
The media flock to the Collection to see the history machine activated, to see what it can really do. However, when Doggles does turn the machine on the shit most surely hits the fan as time fractures into little bitty pieces…
Guerrier does a fine job setting up the short story collection. The death of Wolsey possibly doesn’t leave the reader gasping for breath, but Guerrier handles Benny mourning for her cat well. The introduction of Doggles and the History Machine is interesting but, of course, relies on the following 15 stories to see if the idea pays off.
Overall a solid start to the anthology.
Siege Mentality – James Swallow
James Swallow, in recent years, has produced some good quality work in the 2000AD, WarHammer and Doctor Who Universes. Siege Mentality takes place right after the History Machine going bonkers, and begins with a graphic scene of bystanders being caught in its fiery wake. There’s more body damage, and grisly stuff to come as the Ice Warriors use the confusion to their advantage. And then there’s the fact that Brax seems to have gone completely mad.
Swallow does a great job, in the short amount of words at his disposal, to not only ratchet up the tension but keep the story pounding forward. Swallow also, partially, circumvents the issue of whether we should care when a major character dies since we know the status quo will be restored by the start of the next story. He does this by making those deaths seem as horrible as possible. It might be cheap and nasty but I thought it worked.
And the story also offers some foreshadowing of things to come with Brax and his reality bomb.
Dead Mice – Joseph Lidster
Joseph Lidster is a stalwart (god that’s a horrible word) of the Big Finish range. He’s written a number of Doctor Who audios and related spin-offs and featured in a bunch of Doctor Who and Benny short story collections. A bit like Dave Stone he’s a love him or hate him sort of writer, though I’ve always been firmly in the love him camp.
Dead Mice, however, is not his strongest work. It’s told through Brax’s point of view and shows him coming to terms with what’s going on… and it includes a talking Wolsey. The regulars die horribly, reality becomes distorted and Brax finds his sanity slipping. There’s also a hint of Brax’s deep, dark secret, the one we Benny readers have been wondering about for like three years (or something).
In some ways, it’s a bit too similar to Swallow’s story, what with Brax going mad and regulars dying. And unlike Swallow’s story, the same impact isn’t felt when one of the main character’s kicks the bucket. However, I did like the idea that Wolsey the cat represents Brax’s guilty conscience for the crimes he’s committed, and those he will commit. It adds another layer of ambiguity to Brax’s character.
Act of Senseless Devotion – Pete Kempshall
This is Pete’s first story for Benny (and for Big Finish) and it’s a bloody corker – probably my second favourite of the collection.
Peter is dying from the effects of the History Machine and Benny can’t help him because the machine has also affected her as well. She’s blind. What could have been an angst-ridden character piece turns into a tightly written, twisty-turny thriller as Benny attempts to find away to save her child. And just as I thought I’d picked the ending, Kempshall sucker punches you with another twist.
Walking Backwards for Christmas – Ben Aaronovitch
Do I need to introduce Ben Aaronovitch – the man wrote TV Doctor Who for god sakes (and I don’t mean the New Series either).
I was so looking forward to this story. I mean I adore Transit (even if I didn’t understand it when I first read it as young man of 16 or so) and I loved Also People even more (even if it is a piss-take of Ian Banks’ Culture novels).
Fuelled with so much expectation Ben was always going to let me down, though to be fair he nearly pulled it off. The writing is sublime, the best in the anthology. The problem is that the story is basically fragments of a past life that Benny might’ve (or did) have. A life where she commanded a battalion against Daleks (though not directly referenced in the story) and was also an archaeologist. It just feels incomplete. And while I know that’s partly the point of the story, it just didn’t push my knobs.
That said, just the writing alone has made me all excited for Genius Loci (the next Benny book I’ll be reviewing).
Match of the Deity – Eddie Robson
Eddie is the next big thing in Big Finish range, and he’s been a long time coming. He’s written Doctor Who audios and short stories, with some of his recent stuff appearing in the BBC7 Paul McGann season. I’ve only heard one of his audios (Memory Lane), but just based on that and this particular short story, Eddie is the real deal.
This is the best story in the collection. Not because it’s clever or has the most original plot ever, but because it tells a damn good story in a damn entertaining way. In this possibility Jason died when the History Machine went KABOOM! Years later, Benny is getting on with her life and getting up to her usual hi-jinks. This includes having to masquerade as a God (with Doggles, might I add) to save some archaeologist students on a barbaric planet. What should be a bit of fluff is really funny. The inter-action between Benny and Doggles is funny and witty without falling back on stereotypes and silly gags.
Night of the Living Martian – John Isles
I don’t know if John was a competition winner, but going by the fact that (a) his name isn’t that familiar to me and (b) his story is short, I would say he was.
The story, focussing mostly on Hass and a recurrent dream he’s having, is nicely written but not particularly memorable. Normally I like stuff that is short and tight, but in this particular instance, the story seems to be missing a middle. Just as its gearing up… it ends.
My other issue is that with a few minor tweaks, Night of the Living Martian could have taken place in our Universe.
The GodGene – Ben Woodhams
A solid story about Benny as a revolutionary, fighting the good fight against a fascist-like mob, much like the Axis. The difference is that these people discriminate against those who have a soul (or sentience) and those who don’t (at least that’s how I understand the crazy people’s ideology). There’s some really good stuff here about the bad things we do when we fight, even if we fight for a good cause.
Writing in Green – Dave Hoskin
Dave actually lives about three minutes away from me, but we were both commissioned for the anthology without knowing each other. How weirdo, bizzaro is that? And considering how he can hit me hard with a long stick with a nail on one end if I say his story is shite, I better be Mr Positive.
The good news for me, and for Dave, is that Writing in Green is great. Dave’s done a brilliant job in making Hass, a character who could be dull as ditchwater, come to life. The story is mostly about unrequited feelings and the different ways we express our love to others, and as a character piece it works bloody well.
The only bit that didn’t click for me was the whole time capsule thing at the end. Other than that Dave’s writing evokes just the right amount of emotion, in keeping with Hass’ cool interior.
Showing Initiative – Dave Cromarty
Like John Isles, I believe Dave was a competition winner. It’s a short piece about a guy working his first day on the Collection who inadvertently saves the day.
Like John’s story, this piece sort of begins and then ends. Don’t get me wrong, it’s well written with a pinch of humour thrown in, but it simply lacks the punch of some of the other pieces in the anthology.
A Murderous Desire – Ian Farrington
Ian was, until recently, one of the indentured slaves working at Big Finish towers. He also looks after the short story range. And he’s been my editor on four occasions.
A Murderous Desire starts really well, with some excellent writing. It’s a murder mystery that, in part, uses the unreliable narrator to deliver its twist ending. Early on the dialogue between Benny, Jason, Doggles etc is spot on, and the murder mystery aspect is interesting.
The problem is that in the space of 5,000 words there’s no real space to drop clues for the reader. As a result, there’s no real way the reader can work out who committed the murder until said person is revealed. And while I liked the idea of Brax playing Hercule Poirot, the end of the story does get a bit over-expository as we’re told who the murderer of the piece is.
Back and There Again – Dave Stone
This is one of Dave Stone’s better pieces with less whimsy and more substance. Jason seems to be reliving the same day over and over again and in Memento fashion he’s leaving clues for himself as to what might be going on. The problem is that he can’t remember what the clues mean. This story ties in quite nicely with the arc aspects of the collection.
It’s still not the best piece of writing in the world, mostly because I think Jason is an irritating git. But it’s light years batter than Stone’s novella in Parallel Lives.
One of My Turns – Sin Deniz
This is another story that plays around with people’s identities and their memories. Benny keeps waking up just after the History Machine went pear-shaped only to find that things have shifted subtly around her and her memories are swiss-cheese. The writing is good, the story moves at a decent lick and the ending foreshadows what’s to come in my own story.
My only issue is that it’s very similar to the previous piece by Dave Stone.
The Ice Garden – Jonathan Clements
A well written piece that has Benny, sporting a combat suit, a gun and an eye-patch, return to an ice-blasted Collection in search for something or someone. As with previous stories, Benny can barely remember who she was before the History Machine changed her life forever.
In some respects, this story – especially the revelation – is a reversal on Pete Kempshall’s Act of Senseless Devotion, but lacks the same punch in the guts.
Still a decent story that leads neatly into mine.
Family Man – Ian Mond
Now that I have read the anthology as a whole, I realise that my story misses out on a whole lot of subtlety. I’m glad it doesn’t reference every story before it, but I think I could have used more continuity – like a reference to Jason’s scar… or even a reference to Jason.
Anyway, things that you might want to know:
- The brief from Simon was to end the story with a scene where Brax has to kill Doggles in front of a complicit crowd;
- I swear Ben was never meant to be a male Benny… it just sort of happened that way;
- I didn’t write the first page. It was a late addition, written by Simon to make the relationship between my story and those that came before a bit clearer. Simon does a pretty good job in mimicking my style;
- I wanted the story to be a Brax version of Human Nature, except done in 3,500 words. I’m not sure whether I succeed;
- The dialogue between Brax and Benny is mostly rubbish and melodramatic and cringeworthy;
- I love the bit where Human Brax meets our Brax;
- I swear allot.
AfterLife – Simon Guerrier
Ties up everything quite nicely, even if it does press the reset switch… well sort of. My only gripe is that after all my hard work in killing Doggles, Simon – the bastard – brings him back J. Oh, and Hass is no longer an ice-warrior.
Overall, Something Changed is a good collection. It has a nice over-arcing theme, with subtle elements tracing their way through most of the stories (little things like references to mirrors, and the scar on Jason’s face and Brax going a bit crazy).
However, I’m not sure if the anthology – idea wise – makes the most of the whole parallel universe format. At times, the stories feel a bit safe, and it’s only in later stories where you feel that the changes might have permanent repercussions. And because the ideas seem a bit thin on the ground, there’s a sameness about the pieces, especially toward the end where in three stories the point of view character is having memory problems.